Fullback -- yes, fullback -- gives Vikings important layer on offense

EAGAN, Minn. -- It's like a game of cat and mouse for John DeFilippo and C.J. Ham.

During the preseason, the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator made daily changes to the practice script on where he'd have Ham, the third-year fullback. Instead of lining him up in front of the running back in 21 personnel, a traditional spot for fullbacks, Ham might have been placed at the tight end position off the right tackle. Sometimes he was in the slot. Other instances he was out wide.

DeFilippo could never catch Ham off guard. That solidified how big of an asset the fullback can be in his scheme.

"C.J. Ham is one of the most diligent football players I've ever coached," DeFilippo said. "He is a guy that, to me, when I talked about the more you can do, he can do a lot of things and lot of things well."

One of the hot topics during the week leading up to the San Francisco 49ers-Vikings season opener was -- you guessed it -- a position considered a dying breed in today's NFL.

San Francisco used a fullback more than any team in 2017. Kyle Juszczyk, a former tight end, caught 33 passes for 315 yards and a touchdown in 210 snaps as a fullback. Ham logged 196 snaps on offense during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, including 20 as a tight end, 15 in the slot and seven as a wide receiver.

Ham has a lot of responsibilities. He is relied on for his blocking, sometimes used to overload one side of the offensive line or aid in pass protection. Pre-snap, he may be utilized on a shift or a motion. He's a dependable threat to catch a screen pass and use his frame to pick up yards after the catch.

His versatility at Augustana, where he rushed for 2,262 yards and 29 touchdowns and had almost 1,000 yards receiving, landed him a spot with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2016. His transition from running back to fullback last offseason provided Minnesota with more than just an aggressive blocker.

Learning how to incorporate elements of the run game into his new role didn't happen overnight.

"You'd think being the next running back, you'd be able to see the holes and stuff like that, but when you're playing a fullback, it's kind of a whole other prospective," Ham said. "You need to know what the offensive line is doing -- the fits are a little bit different and, you know, a little more in detail."

As coach Mike Zimmer noted, fullbacks are hard to find. The best ones don't just "pound it up in there and run leads on linebackers." They can line up as receivers, block and allow plays to develop for others.

The way DeFilippo spreads his playmakers out extends to Ham, whose versatility gives Minnesota a wrinkle that's likely to be a regular part of what the Vikings do offensively.

"I've been a part of that crew and moving around, and I'm just glad I can stay on top of it and not give them an excuse to not have me in the game," Ham said.